Essential and At Risk: How COVID-19 is Hurting New York City’s Undocumented Immigrants

By Ayendy Bonifacio

A dark and empty store with bananas on display
Photo by Ronny Coste on Unsplash

My brother is a 31-year old immigrant from the Dominican Republic. He is a grocery-store worker in Harlem, NY, where more than 1,000 residents have tested positive for COVID-19. Every day, he commutes to work from East New York, Brooklyn, where he lives in a cramped, 2-bedroom, apartment with his in-laws, wife, their 3-year-old son, and newborn. Two days prior to writing this essay, I asked him how he was feeling. He told me that he was “coming down with a cold.” The following day, he called to tell me that he couldn’t taste or smell. I asked him if he would go into work, and he explained: “I’m an essential worker, so I have to go in. Over the phone, I overheard my three-year-old nephew in the background playing with his favorite toy dinosaurs. That evening, my brother’s father-in-law developed alarming COVID-19 symptoms, including a fever of 104 and a persistent cough. As a precautionary measure, he and his father-in-law quarantined in one of the bedrooms. I couldn’t help but be afraid. A deep sense of powerlessness and anxiety are the symptoms of my relative privilege as I speak to him from the safety of my socially distanced apartment.

New York City is the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. With over 170,000 COVID-19 cases including more than 14,000 deaths, the five boroughs have become a hot zone for the novel coronavirus. For the more than half a million undocumented immigrants in this City, the pandemic exacerbates pre-existing structures of oppression including concentrated poverty, legal inequality, and unreliable healthcare. These morally unjust realities provide fertile ground for COVID-19 to spread among this vulnerable community. While many New Yorkers work from home and practice social distancing, undocumented immigrants — an already disenfranchised and marginalized demographic — face unprecedented legal, health, and financial risks that will linger far longer than the duration of this pandemic. How, then, are undocumented immigrants, to navigate and survive this frightening health care crisis?

Undocumented immigrants in New York City working in the food and agriculture sector are one of the most precarious groups when it comes to COVID-19 infection. This “essential” workforce comprises a wide-ranging segment of workers who sell, produce, and distribute food and other essential products. Reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) agree that social distancing and quarantine can mitigate this pandemic and keep oneself and one’s loved ones safe from infection. Yet, there are hundreds of thousands of essential workers who cannot quarantine or adequately practice social distancing because of their busy work environments and financial insecurity. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, only 13% of the Latinx workforce can work from home. This number dramatically shrinks when we consider undocumented Latinx immigrants. In New York City, where Latinx immigrants make up more than 23% of the population, 18% of the City’s immigrants are undocumented. This percentage roughly amounts to 500,000 individuals, many of whom work in essential jobs like the food, agricultural, and janitorial sectors. At home, on their way to work, and at their jobs, essential workers encounter hundreds of potential carriers of COVID-19 on a daily basis.

In a press conference on April 1, the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, claimed that “16,000 New Yorkers could die” before COVID-19 runs its course. This projection includes essential workers at grocery stores and supermarkets who, reports show, are already testing positive and dying for COVID-19. According to the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), there have been “at least 72 worker deaths and 5,322 workers directly impacted among the UFCW’s 1.3 million members who work in grocery, retail, pharmacy, meatpacking, and other essential industries.” In the coming months, these numbers will inevitably grow without proper action from state and federal governments. The UFCW has asked federal and state governments to assign grocery workers as “extended first responders” to better protect them from infection. American shoppers can also take immediate steps by wearing masks and gloves when they shop. So far, federal and state governments have not put out clear and practical strategies to protect undocumented immigrants and their families from unprecedented harm.

For many undocumented essential workers, public exposure puts them at risk of being targeted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). On March 18, ICE updated their website, stating it “will temporarily adjust its enforcement posture. . . [and its temporary priorities] are to promote life-saving and public safety activities.” The divisive rhetoric that has come to define ICE and the Trump Administration cannot be reversed with a simple addendum to a website, especially when ICE continues to detain immigrants during this crisis. On the same date that ICE updated its policies, The New York Times reported that “ICE agents over the past week have continued to make arrests in some of the regions hardest hit by the virus, including California and New York.” ICE’s enforcement posture is a paradox that catalyzes the deeply rooted skepticism migrants have for this agency. How could ICE, for instance, protect the health of undocumented people and simultaneously refuse them the fundamental human right of migration? This paradox thwarts all efforts to safeguard the most vulnerable.

For undocumented immigrants with underlying health conditions, the possibility of deportation exacerbates their physical and mental health, making these individuals even more defenseless against a virus that is ravaging their workplace, neighborhoods, and homes. Over the phone, my brother tells me, “People at my job are getting sick. They know what symptoms to look for — a fever and a cough — so they take time off.” I asked him if they are getting tested. He replies, “Many of them are undocumented and won’t risk going to the doctor. They are afraid of being deported.” According to Heide Castañeda, the stress of possible deportation and separation from family members directly affects the psychological and biological health of undocumented immigrants. Castañeda argues, “Hostile policy environments result in intense feelings of anxiety, fear, and depression, which exacerbate preexisting health conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes.” Even though the CDC has made it clear that those with underlying medical conditions are most at risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19, more needs to be done to quell the social conditions that exacerbate underlying health conditions, particularly for immigrant communities.

Sign on a store front the reads “aberto 24hrs” or “Open 24 hrs”
Photo by Lucas Ettore Chiereguini from Pexels

In New York City, undocumented essential workers also face the threat of the coronavirus on their commute to work. Over 1.6 million New Yorkers take the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) every year. Since Gov. Cuomo issued a “pause” on nonessential services, MTA subway ridership has decreased by 87%. However, essential workers from underserved communities — with significant immigrant populations like the Mount Eden area of the Bronx — still depend on the subway to get to work. With fewer commuters and fewer trains servicing stations, many essential workers have no option but to board overcrowded trains to get to work. Many are worried — but as one subway rider puts it, they don’t have much of a choice: “This virus is very dangerous. I don’t want to get sick; I don’t want my family to get sick, but I still need to get to my job.”

In addition to facing unprecedented legal and health risks, undocumented immigrants are confronting a financial crisis as well. The Pew Research Center reports that “U.S. Latinos are among the hardest hit by pay cuts and job losses due to Coronavirus.” Nearly 50% of Latinx people in the U.S. reported that they, or someone in their household, have lost a job or taken a pay cut due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This study, however, does not account for undocumented people who often live in the shadows of society out of fear of deportation. Some undocumented immigrants say that they have to work even if they have COVID-19 symptoms.

The U.S. government has not issued any orders for aiding undocumented immigrants living and working on the margins of U.S. society. First, undocumented people don’t qualify for the Trump Administration’s coronavirus relief package. NPR reports, “The legislation, which provides one-time cash payments to low- and middle-income households, excludes immigrants in the country illegally as well as children who are U.S. citizens but have at least one parent who is undocumented.” Secondly, undocumented immigrants legally cannot collect unemployment insurance. As of May, over 33 million Americans have filed for unemployment. So, while U.S. citizens and documented immigrants receive financial help from the federal government, millions of undocumented people now have to figure out other ways to make ends meet. Many will have to dip into their savings to pay their rent and buy food; others who live paycheck to paycheck will have even fewer options.

So, what does this financial and legal uncertainty mean for the more than half a million undocumented immigrants in New York City? Do undocumented essential workers, like the ones who work with my brother, have no choice but to weather the medical and economic storm that continually worsens?

Undocumented immigrants deserve more than our “thoughts and prayers,” which is the generalized rhetoric that the Trump Administration offers after catastrophes.

It is morally inept and counterintuitive to not provide relief to all who need it. If the objective is, as the CDC puts it, to “protect individuals at increased risk for severe illness,” then we must truly support the most vulnerable and not simplistically base relief on one’s legal status. The threat of deportation prevents many undocumented people from seeking the health care they need. As a result, they pose a great risk to themselves and others. Unless the U.S. government’s policy urges and supports undocumented people, the danger of infection could increase for everyone. Undocumented immigrants are hostage to a failing capitalist market economy plagued by a history of colonialism and racism. The COVID-19 pandemic intensifies the risks of undocumented people. The U.S. government’s unwillingness to address the economic disparity, legal inequality, and unreliable healthcare of undocumented people represents the vicious pitfalls of a crumbling, if not poor, health care system manufactured by an equally mythical American dream.

Ayendy Bonifacio holds a Ph.D. in English from the Ohio State University. His areas of scholarship include American literature and culture, including Latino/a/x studies; digital humanities; public humanities; transamerican poetics, specifically poetry as a form of public discourse; and hemispheric studies. His current book project, Poems Go Viral: Reprint Culture in the US Popular Press (1855–1866), draws examples from over 200 English- and Spanish-language popular dailies and weeklies between January 1855 and December 1866.

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